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Prior to the Tarahumara, the Paquime civilization dominated northern Mexico and the canyons of the Sierra Madre Occidental. They were farmers and traders whose trade routes extended to the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico and to other cultural centers to the north such as Mesa Verde in the USA state of Colorado and Chaco Canyon in the USA state of New Mexico. The archaeological and World Heritage Site of Paquime is located near Nuevo Casas Grande. Paquime was a pueblo community similar to those found in the Southwest of the United States. It reached its prominence in the 14th century, the same time that it was destroyed and abandoned. Other remnants of the Paquime civilization include adobe cave structures, similar to those of the Ancient Puebloans (Anasazi) of the USA Southwest.
The history of the Tarahumara begins with the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1600’s. Due to the lack of a written native language nothing of their prehistory was recorded. The Spaniards main motive for exploring this area of Mexico was their search for gold and silver, as well as the drive to save the souls of the natives.
Their first contact with the Spaniards was with the Jesuit missionaries around 1607. The Jesuits brought Christianity and introduced new agricultural techniques such as irrigation and the plow and axe. They also planted fruit trees and introduced domesticated animals such as sheep and goats. The Jesuit era lasted until 1767 when they were expelled from Mexico by Spain. During this time when the Jesuits exerted their influence, there were several uprisings by the Tarahumara against the Spanish. Many of the Catholic religious concepts became mixed with the Tarahumara native beliefs. See Religion below.
Quantities of silver ore were discovered in the Tarahumara lands during the 17th Century. These brought large influxes of Spaniards into the region. Land was confiscated to provide crops for the miners and many Indians were captured to serve as forced laborers in the mines. The Spaniards tried to move the Tarahumara and the other natives away from the rancheras into compact villages where they could be "civilized" and be more efficiently organized as a labor force. However most of the mines in the region did not yield great quantities of ore and after the Jesuits were expelled by the Spaniards in 1767, the Tarahumara were mostly left alone by the government and contact was minimized.
After Mexico gained Independence in 1821, laws were passed encouraging settlement in the state of Chihuahua. As a result, more Mexicans moved into Tarahumara country, thereby driving the Tarahumara further into the less desirable mountain lands. This pattern of avoidance became their means of handling contact with non-Indians and it continued well into the 20th Century.
Archeological Zone of Paquimé, Casas Grandes - Unesco Site detailing the ruins of Paquimé.
Cave Dwellings of the Huapoca Canyon, Mexico - Description of the canyon and the ancient cave dwellings found in the area.
Paquime - Very detailed article with photos of the Paquime archeological site.
Sierra Tarahumara - Background information on the Sierras and several canyons by Adventures Great and Small.
Stabilizing Indigenous Languages The Tarahumara of Mexico - An excellent paper on the reasons for the possible loss of the Tarahumara language.
Tarahumara Background Info - History, and a discussion of their social organization and current issues that effect the people.